Thursday, 13 June 2013


There's a shill line that comes up every time a privacy or government snooping scandal breaks, that only people who have something to hide get angry about invasions of their privacy. I want to be very clear: I'm not saying that. What I'm saying is that I have never personally felt afraid or angry about the government having information about me. For some reason, I don't have the strong emotional response that most of my friends, and particularly some of those whose political views I most respect, have. And it worries me that I might be missing something.

I can completely understand not trusting politicians, of course, but only in the sense that we need better politicians. The rhetoric I hear from what I'll somewhat clumsily label the 'pro-privacy lobby' suggests that they consider privacy a basic human right on a par with freedom of speech. Now, I take it as a fundamental principle that there should be a reason for any basic right, and I can't see one for privacy.

Equally, I don't have a clear argument why it shouldn't be. I could argue, I suppose, that governments need information to base their decisions on, but most of the information they need can be harmlessly anonymised. I could argue, too, that people who are willing to share their personal lives on facebook (and with any number of other private corporations who are far more likely that governments to be evil rather than just incompetent) don't get to complain about violations of privacy, but that's trite and ad hominem.

Perhaps the most compelling argument is that governments aren't really likely to be able to use the information they gather, never mind that they're not really interested in the kind of stuff we generally care about keeping private. There's a legitimate question of whether a phone recording being stored in a machine somewhere where no human being will ever actually listen to it constitutes a breach of privacy, or the breach only occurs when an actual human being tunes in. It's a variation on the 'if a tree falls in the forest' question, I suppose.

But none of these arguments really satisfies me. They're interesting points, worth discussing, but I've discussed them at length with various people before. What interests me here is purely the psychological disconnect I'm experiencing. Why, at an emotional level, am I not scared of the recent story about NSA snooping (apart from the fact that it's mainly about the US - I'm a one-world kind of guy, after all)?

Okay, I'm British and thus don't have quite the level of automatic distrust of government that seems hard-wired into all US political activism, and I grew up in a very trusting and trust-worthy family environment, but it can't be that simple, can it? I have friends with very similar backgrounds who are fiercely pro-privacy.

So (and this is probably the only time you'll ever hear me say this) scare me. What am I missing? Why is there a strong right to privacy?

1 comment:

  1. I'm somewhere in the (mostly) apathetic mid-ground. I'm against all this snooping, but I don't care enough to make it worthwhile.
    But I think perhaps the horror comes not from how things are, but how easily things can happen given an unexpected shift. For example, what if Pol Pot had used PRISM with an arbitrary "intelligence-level" algorithm in his selection of intellectuals?
    It's easy to think that no negative change will happen, and in truth it probably won't. But what if it did? For example, in our country it's now illegal to possess a copy of a magazine 'often used by terrorists' with instructions on how to make bombs etc. Having it in your possession = prison. This has been stated. The wife of a suicide-bomber had a copy of the magazine to try and see why her husband did what he did, and she was subsequently arrested for it.
    In fact, I suppose we can stay on the theme of 'Islamic extremism'. It wouldn't be difficult to monitor pictures of, say, men between 20-30 on facebook, instagram etc. Then filter those who either have beards, or more likely are growing the traditional Muslim beard. Perhaps look at those who's proportion of friends that are Muslim are growing. Perhaps even those who've posted a status about going on holiday, and then cross-referencing their passport with the country they've visited. Add perhaps one or two other 'indicators', and perhaps the government feel like they've identified a terrorist. Then, algorithmically speaking, regardless of if this man is a terrorist, we better detain him, perhaps indefinitely, so he doesn't blow someone up.

    On perhaps a similar note, what if revolution was required? I get we're in a democracy now and it's all fine and good and whatnot. But what if we wanted, for whatever reason, a revolution. It would be extremely easy to algorithmically find people who might have a predisposition to rebellion and dissonance and just... stop them.
    And since technology is always progressing, what if a country that's currently in need of a revolution, started using a PRISM like system on it's people. Boom, instant continued dictatorship.
    Right now, everything is fine.